The Education of Sharon Sayles Belton

No party endorsement, a disastrous primary, and an opponent who attracts wealthy liberals: Can Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton revive her reelection campaign?

THE MAYOR ORDERS A JACK Daniel's on the rocks. Then, bellied up to the bar at the Polish Palace, she surveys the room with no small sense of caution. It's just after 10:00 on a Saturday night, the last night of business for the northeast Minneapolis landmark, which is ending a run of 23 years. The place has been drunk dry. All that's left is fuzzy memories, empty bottles, and drunken patrons who aren't quite ready to go home.

"I'll get a drink," Sharon Sayles Belton says confidently. "I'm the mayor."

She's right, of course, and soon she's sipping her whiskey and awkwardly chatting up groups of people squished into red vinyl booths. With just five weeks left before Election Day, the mayor of Minneapolis is barhopping with former city council member Walt Dziedzic. She insists that in her previous two mayoral races, she ran citywide campaigns, but surprised reactions to her stint in Nordeast tonight proves that those campaigns were low-profile, to say the least.

P-Jay Fidler

Which is not to say that folks aren't happy to see her. As she meanders around the bar, she's swarmed by elderly ladies and thirtysomething working-class men, all clamoring to shake her hand or have their picture taken with her. Sayles Belton is tiny, and since this is a campaign stop and not an official mayoral activity, there is no security with her. At times the crush of people is intimidating, but Sayles Belton doesn't bat an eye.

She smoothes her royal-blue blazer, which tops a black blouse and black pants. An ever-present string of pearls circles her neck. She takes another sip of her JD, turns, touches someone's forearm, and asks, "Are you having fun?"

Sayles Belton asks this question a lot, to many of the people she meets. It's almost a conversational tic--except that the question seems genuine. It's preceded and followed by a pause and usually accompanied by some sort of physical contact. And in countless meet-and-greets, the question never fails to yield some sort of earnest answer, often one that traps her into listening to a lengthy personal tale. It's a gift for building support that many politicians would kill to have, but lately it hasn't been enough.

In the men's room, a 30-year-old man in a ball cap is pontificating. "I've never been a big fan of the mayor's until tonight," says Johnny Herlofsky, who has lived in Nordeast all his life and sells emergency sprinkler systems to building contractors. "But she took my heat as soon as she came in. She is very impressive one-on-one."

As Herlofsky zips up his jeans, he says Dziedzic asked him to spin a little bit on the mayor's behalf. He's known Dziedzic, an ex-cop and current member of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, since Herlofsky was a kid. And around here whatever Walt asks of folks, they do.

"I told her when she came in that she didn't look Polish," Herlofsky chuckles. "It's a lose-lose situation for a black person to come in here. I've never seen her here. It takes a lot of guts for her to come to the Polish Palace. We don't like most black people up here. Usually I can't stand her, but she seems cool tonight."

A half-hour after entering the bar, the mayor has made her way out the door. When she is safely outside, a female patron shouts out, "Don't raise our taxes, you bitch!" Then a drunken man follows by calling out to Sayles Belton, "You're a lesbian!" There's a shudder of laughter in the bar, but Sayles Belton doesn't hear any of it. She's already riding shotgun in Dziedzic's gold Oldsmobile 88 Royale.

 

FOR A WOMAN WHO skated to reelection in 1997, it's been a remarkably tough year. In the spring, R.T. Rybak rallied a surprising amount of support from delegates at the DFL caucus, in what was generally considered to be a crushing blow to Sayles Belton's campaign. The convention ended with a virtual deadlock, and the party failed to endorse a candidate.

In July Brian Herron, the council member who filled Sayles Belton's former Eighth Ward seat, pleaded guilty to extortion, casting something of a pall over all municipal incumbents seeking reelection. Plus, the city's bond rating was downgraded, bolstering Rybak and other critics who argue that Sayles Belton has been too supportive of downtown development. Finally, there was her second-place finish in the September primary.

The buzz from city hall to block clubs was that the mayor was out of touch. Or, more precisely, out of sight, too tethered to the hidden powers at work in city hall to really do any good for the constituency at large.

Her poor showing in the primary served as a dramatic wake-up call, though. Up until the primary, Sayles Belton had been stumping on such esoteric issues as her work with suburban mayors and the Metropolitan Council to look for help in tackling the metro area's affordable-housing problem, or her management of revitalization projects in the historically downtrodden Phillips neighborhood. Equally problematic is that Sayles Belton truly sees deals like the downtown Target store or the Block E development as evidence that she can bridge the divide between government and the private sector--and brags about them.

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